It’s not uncommon for twice-exceptional kids to fall apart in middle school. Up until then, many may have been able to fake success, but the demands of more classes, more homework, and a more challenging social environment can overwhelm them. Maybe the child has been spending hours on what should have been 30 minutes of homework, maybe he has begun to refer to himself as “stupidhead,” maybe he is reduced to tears three nights a week by Algebra 101 or essay assignments—but often all the school sees is a C student who “isn’t living up to his potential.”
At that point, even if parents ask the school to do some testing, they may meet resistance: Testing is expensive and time-consuming, campus psychologists are spread very thin, and schools are under pressure to put fewer kids in special education, in the name of “mainstreaming,” not more. So the parents often end up resorting to private testing, which can run as high as $2,000 and is seldom covered by insurance. Or they may simply stop and wait for their kid to flunk math, at which point the school will be forced to come up with some kind of plan—an approach called “waiting to fail.” In recent years, this approach has been supplanted by a more humane educational tactic called “response to intervention,” which is a fancy way of saying “tackling these problems early with specialized instruction.” But theories don’t always survive the collision with the reality: general-education teachers who are overworked, stressed, and under-trained in the discipline techniques that are most effective with kids whose brains are wired differently. As somebody (sadly, probably not Yogi Berra) once said, “In theory, there’s no difference between theory and practice. In practice, there is.”
And so, the IEP meeting, which is where the overarching purpose of federal law (“to ensure that all children with disabilities have available to them a free appropriate public education … [that provides] services to meet their unique needs”) meets the nitty gritty question: How do we do that for this particular child? In plain English, the IEP is a document that states the child’s specific disability, his current level of academic performance, his academic goals, the progress he has made so far, and a detailed summary of how the school plans to help him going forward. They take place at least once a year, but can be much more frequent, and they must be attended by at least one of the child’s teachers, a school psychologist, or at least somebody who can interpret various test results, somebody from special education, and a school administrator. If things have not been going well, parents may bring lawyers to the meeting, which means attorneys for the school system are, too.
The whole thing is a cross between a legal deposition and a committee meeting, and it follows a rough script: Everybody introduces themselves for the record, teachers give a progress update, and then everyone gets down to the question of what to do next—which, by law, has to start by considering placement in the “least restrictive environment,” otherwise known as the neighborhood school. Since my daughter was diagnosed with ADHD in second grade, I figure I’ve sat in on at least 20 of these little confabs, with up to 15 people in attendance. This is a high number, and any educator seeing it would immediately suspect that I was a high-maintenance “helicopter parent.” All I can say is: guilty as charged. In my own defense, my daughter had the misfortune of being at an elementary school noted for having the highest standardized test scores in the county and an institutional culture that seems to regard kids with learning disabilities as impediments to their goal of keeping those scores high. You could say the school and I had differing agendas.